Fr. Jerry Waris Reflects on Oscar Romero

Fr. Jerry Waris, who has participated in and lead many delegations to El Salvador, offers his personal reflection on his experiences there.  He also provides an understanding of who Archbishop Oscar Romero was and remains today.  Fr. Waris is a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph who recently retired from parish ministry.  He is, however, spending his “retirement” in a number of social and pastoral ministries.  He wrote the following.

In the course of my 69 years, I have been blessed because I have met so many wonderful people.   I best describe wonderful as:  people of compassion, a sense of justice, a gift to make others feel welcome and included, and of deep faith.   Walking thru life and working in five different parishes, I have come to experience the living Gospel in the people whom I have encountered, with whom I have prayed, and from whom I have received forgiveness.

But, in honesty, I know that there are so many people whom I have not met but who have inspired me, befriended me, and encouraged me; and I have never had the opportunity to thank them for their gifts.  I suppose that is what makes dying less painful —  those surprises we will encounter in the kingdom wherein we will meet these friends who have inspired us and allowed us to be better persons.  Those who come to my mind and who, I believe are sitting at the banquet table with our Lord, are:   Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, Sisters Ita, Maura and Dorothy with their companion Jean, Mother Teresa, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.  Thinking of meeting such wonderful and loving servants as these women and men, and being with the God who created them in goodness, permits one to think of death as an invitation to new life and new adventures.

This year the church of El Salvador and friends from around the world will celebrate the 30th anniversary of our friend, Oscar Romero.  I first became acquainted with this generous servant when I learned of his death at the hands of an assassin’s bullet.   The Archbishop was struck down while offering Mass in the little chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital.  Ever since that dreadful day, March 24, 1980, the people of El Salvador have mourned the loss of their beloved leader and servant.

In 1988 I traveled to El Salvador for the first time; I was invited to be a member of a delegation which represented many different Catholic communities in the United States.  We were honored to pray at the tomb of Oscar Romero.  I remember well the impression made by  the expressions of gratitude placed near or on the tomb for favors granted by and thru the intercession of Bishop Romero.   The people who were loved by him, felt they were never forsaken by him even after his death.   The many requests in prayer which were offered and answered, spoke to the people of his everlasting presence.   During that time, I was officially introduced to a man whom I came to admire and wished to emulate.

The following year, I invited several people from St. Peter’s Parish, Kansas City, Missouri,  to join me in visiting this land.  A land so afflicted by war and violence, which ironically, is named after our Savior.  Before the journey to El Salvador, I received in the mail the film, Romero, sent to me by the producers and director, Fr. Kaiser.  I was asked to bring this film to Msgr. Urioste, a dear friend and companion of Oscar Romero, so he could view the film and offer comments.  Before leaving, I invited friends to my rectory to see this film which was to have been released later in the summer.   As the story of Romero’s life became so vivid on the screen, I realized that this man, like many saints, underwent a deep conversion.  In the short span of his life as Archbishop, Romero made a decision to be the voice for the poor and to be harbinger of  justice and dignity for all.   His voice led him to his death, but led his people to eternal hope.

Shortly before his assassination in the chapel of the Divine Providence, he told a friend in an interview,  “Martyrdom is a grace I don’t believe I am worthy of.  But, if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be a seed of liberty and a sign that hope will become a reality.”

A few days later he delivered his last spoken homily.  His words and courage continue to speak to all in the world who search for hope, work for justice and proclaim peace to all.  In that last Mass, Romero read the Gospel about the grain of wheat that dies and produces a hundredfold.  He said:”  Whoever out of love for Christ gives themselves to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently.  If it did not die, it would remain alone; only in dying does it produce the harvest”  The Gospel that day was proclaimed, it was explained; and indeed, the Word became flesh and real to the people who witnessed the pouring out of one’s life for one’s friends.

In our travels these many years we, who are pilgrims, can testify that each of us has experienced a conversion, a new understanding of the plight of the poor, and a call to walk in solidarity with the most humble of God’s people.   On our first trip, when asked if we had ever been to El Salvador, a number in our group responded that it was the first time.   Fr. Dean Brackley then assured all of us that  we would fall in love with the people and we would be ruined for life.  Ruined? Maybe saved!

I think about Archbishop Romero often.  When I look to the Church for authentic leadership, I see this wonderful man whom I have never met but whom I love dearly.  I think if he had never been assassinated, I might not have ever felt the call to go to El Salvador in 1988.  His martyrdom and witness have given many of us a new vision, a new calling, a new hope, a new world, and a new kingdom.   I hope and pray that God will allow us all the privilege to meet these wonderful men and women who have gone before us.  Once we have that honor, we will come to see more clearly the magnificence of God’s creation and his marvelous ways among us — yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

I know that March 24th, his 30th Anniversary, is in the final days of Lent.  We should think of sacrifice, of helping the poor, of being kind.  Also, we might allow ourselves in prayer to thank God for this modern day saint; and we might lift a glass as a toast to all of our brothers and sisters who have walked together in solidarity to help make the dream of this saintly man a reality for the people he loved and for whom he gave his life.

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